Thoughts on Debate #3

I've read a lot of interesting commentary, of which I'd like to mention the best bits.  First, my own semi-original conclusion.  Matt Yglesias points out the fact that the pundits seemed to like John McCain's performance much more so than polls suggest ordinary voters did.  He points out, rightly I think, that McCain's inside baseball talk on things like sugar subsidies plays well to political junkies– of which pundits are, of course, a subset– but is right over the head of most Americans.  More importantly, though, are the visuals– that is body language, facial expression, etc.  In a great political science study that is now twenty years old, Dennis Sullivan and Roger Masters evaluated how voters responded to video clips of politicians with and without sound.  The key finding was that simply the visual cues in faces and body language were the most predictive of the subjects' attitudes.  So, in this case, I think it is pretty safe to say that Obama's calm, reassuring precense brought him the “win” over McCain's twitchy aggressiveness, regardless of what was actually said.  I think Kevin Drum has great related insight on this point:

Conventional pundit wisdom seems to accept that a vigorous attack shows
strength. But that's not true. Think of all the genuinely strong people
you've known in your life. What sets them apart is that they stay calm when other people are attacking.
McCain doesn't seem to get this, and neither do the conservatives who
were insisting that McCain needed to haul out the heavy artillery
tonight. Obama does…

Pundits really like fireworks, and they think sharp attacks show
strength and vitality. But the public, outside of the hardcore base on
both sides, mostly views them as petty and mean.

Truth is, though, there is pretty much nothing McCain could have done last night to truly change the race.  Obama could still do things to lose it, but there's nothing McCain can do to win it.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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